Gable: Sustainable success needs engagement and commitment from many

Updated: December 6, 2010

Editor’s Note: During Dan Gable’s 20 years (1977-97) of coaching at Iowa, the Hawkeyes won 15 national championships and never finished lower than sixth in the NCAA tournament. While Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Iowa are the only programs to have won titles since 1998, they have also fallen on tough times after enjoying success. Gable spoke with WIN editor Mike Finn about the keys to attaining sustainability.

This is an expanded version of the Q&A that was published in the Dec. 9, 2010 (Vol. 17, No. 2) issue of WIN.

Dan Gable

WIN: Why is it so hard to sustain success now compared to when your Iowa teams dominated the sport?

GABLE: Wrestling has more people who are capable when they do the right things. We have more coaches who are in positions and capable of winning national championships. Compared to the past, we have doubled or tripled the number of committed coaches. That’s hard to believe because we are way below what we need.

The committed coach has to find a way that he can get a program at a national championship level with or without the administration. You will get the administration in a certain point in time, but not necessarily at the beginning. You have to be resourceful. You have to be imaginative. You have to work hard and get a lot of people working hard for you.

Right now, (Cornell coach) Rob Koll, even though he hasn’t won a national championship, is really impressive. The reason is that he has engaged a lot of people to help what is lacking. For example, he doesn’t have any scholarships. There is financial aid but not everyone qualifies for financial aid.

He has engaged his alumni a lot. That’s a real key for the future of programs not only to sustain their program but also to take it to another level of excellence. It is a support group that becomes committed because they have stock in the program.

It may be hard to get going, but I really think that is a huge answer to sustain the program and take it to a high level. I think athletic directors will be much more engaged if they see coaches work hard to sustain the program.

WIN: Is there a difference in the level of competition now compared to when you coached at Iowa?

GABLE: I had Oklahoma State and Iowa State that I had to beat every year. Then throw in Arizona State the one year (1988). But there were no other consistent programs that challenged us year in and year out. Oklahoma was there but never won a national title during those years. Wisconsin and Ohio State also gave us some good fights. There were more programs then, but many were held together by a shoestring and a shoestring that was untied.

Now, let’s look at institutions that are trying to make commitments. We have Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Oklahoma State, and Penn State and now we have Cornell. There are two or three times as many programs that are committed to winning a national team championship. I’m sure there are probably even more than that. Boise State ranks high but has not won a team title yet. They are doing good things with football so perhaps that will help.

Arizona State has put the resources in. The University of Michigan also has its own training and competition facilities like Cornell. Central Michigan is turning many heads and other programs are examining their coaching staffs.

So in reality, there are some good things going on.

WIN: Are you saying it’s harder today to sustain it because there are more committed programs and competition?

GABLE: There is more competition at the higher level. There are more committed coaches, people who want to win a national championship and people have come back to help make it possible. Whether they can do it depends on the ability of the coach to out-source a lot of his duties and have it run smooth.

WIN: Is the reason there are more programs that appear to be committed to winning because there are more committed coaches or there are more administrations that are committed?

GABLE: If you look at Minnesota, I think J Robinson did it when (the Gopher administration) may not have thought he could win a national championship. It seemed like he was always in a battle with his administration. They did help him out because he proved he could do it. It wasn’t like the administration came to him and said we want to win a national championship.

Whereas if you look at Penn State, that is a different situation. I would say their alumni got engaged and convinced the administration that they should be a national championship team. Then they went out and found Cael Sanderson. It will come back to him whether they win or not.

It takes a group of people to start it and build from there. I remember (then athletic director) Bump Elliott telling me that “you guys need to show that you are on the right track and every year I will help you a little bit more.”

WIN: Does the sport need more parity?

GABLE: I don’t like to use that term because I am an extremist on winning. But if more people had the chance to see that they could do well if they did certain things, then more people would do those certain things.

I think there needs to be a discussion when someone has a certain view (towards creating parity) that is strong and is in an influential position. And at the same time, someone else has a strong opinion from another side. Both opinions could be good (for wrestling), but they must hear the other talk and make the right decisions.

WIN: Right now there are programs in the East that are making the commitment, but not out west. For example, the area of Fresno, Calif., where the All-Star Classic was held, is such hotbed for wrestling but not with the college administrators. Is it possible to make it happen on an administrative level, where athletic directors would want to make more of a commitment to wrestling?

GABLE: If football coaches could say that wrestling really has value for their football players, they would be more sensitive to keeping the sport beyond high school. College administrators would be more likely to reward the sport for helping the sport of football.  Wrestling has to be more in the public eye.

Right now, wrestling is a sport of extremists and most sports are. Wrestling also has its issues and we have to work on them. We also have to make our sport more noticeable and more valuable to the total package of what is out there. Right now we don’t have a strong enough voice.

WIN: Who should be the major voices in college wrestling? Should the head coaches become more verbal than they are?

GABLE: Should they be more verbal or should they find ways of creating more situations where people want to jump aboard? If there is one major flaw, I would say it’s with some coaches who have won a national team title like John Smith, Tom Brands and J Robinson. I don’t feel comfortable with their comments or their attitude based on what’s already in existence. We need for the top coaches to feel good about the structure of our sport. When I listen to them, I hear too many things that contradict what is actually going on. Some changes should be made where they feel better and would work more for the sport.

WIN: Is it difficult for coaches to fight for the survival of their own program and to worry about the sport overall?

GABLE: You hit it right on the nose. We need to simplify manners and we need a structure that is looking out for the best route for wrestling in general so that we don’t have people going off in their own direction.

WIN: Don’t administrators have to help coaches develop more solid footing? Coaches want to be great and want the sport to survive but they must feel like they are all out on their own little island.

GABLE: Wrestling needs to move up the ranks (in importance as a college sport) so that it is more important to college administrators. There should not be a question about their existence.

To sustain a program you have to engage your entire team. If you have 35 guys on your team, you have to get them to be engaged, not with just the top five or six. But you must have the next 10 or 20 wrestlers engaged in the same thought or mentality.

WIN: How do coaches and programs do that with scholarship limitations?

GABLE: It doesn’t matter how many scholarships that a program has. It depends on what kind of system that program has and what kind of mentality you build in a kid. I don’t buy the fact that a kid has to be on scholarship for the kid to be good.

There are certain times during a season where you have to focus more on certain guys and those other guys know how to get a lot out of it. When they leave practice, they will understand the importance of what took place.

WIN: How important is recruiting in sustainability?

GABLE: You have to recruit well every year. But at the same time, once you get them there, the system is more important than the recruiting. For example, if you follow Iowa and Iowa State this year, then you will know if their systems have been good. It’s a little unfair to Kevin Jackson, who has not been there that long, but there should be signs of a good system.

WIN: Let’s get back to the word you used earlier: engagement … with alumni, administration and team. Is that the key to success?

GABLE: Doesn’t the word engagement have something to do with marriage, which requires a commitment? You never stop working on it. If I stopped working on my marriage today, I’d become vulnerable. In college wrestling, there are a lot of sides where people must be engaged and committed. With that, you have your best chance for it to succeed.

WIN: Why do even the more successful programs have off-years?

GABLE: That’s human nature and you get a little self-satisfied and living off the past glory. When that happens, you must get back on the horse. It happened to Minnesota and Oklahoma State and they got right back on it. The same thing happened to us at Iowa in the late 1980s. I had to revamp our program, rededicate and work hard at getting the philosophy back.